I’m beginning my fifth trip through Calvin’s Institutes this semester, which is my third trip with a group of students. I am always amazed at the power of Calvin’s writing, which is designed to bring the reader into direct confrontation with God. From the opening page, Calvin aims to make the reader conscious that theology is not a matter of cobbling together texts or concepts, but a matter of worship which requires an obedient intellect. He has written a book which is relentless in setting the young theologian coram Deo, before the face of God, so that doctrine is what one is bold enough to say about God while God is listening. Too often, theology is perpetrated as if we are merely talking to each other, perhaps with God eavesdropping. The best theologians of the Reformation reverse this: Calvin’s book, for instance, gives the uncanny sense that God is the primary auditor and that we the readers are the ones doing the over-hearing. The Reformers were animated by this sense of theology as the Christian community giving an account to God. Better leave out the silly stuff; better quash speculation; best not to trifle here. This is part of what they meant by the special sense they gave to the term confession, as in, a church’s “confession of faith.”
Where did Calvin learn to write like this? Where did he get the ability to teach doctrine in a way that doesn’t just fill out a topical outline, but leaves his readers stranded in the presence of God, forced to make a decision on doctrine after doctrine? Some of the techniques, no doubt, come from his Renaissance humanist training and close study of classical rhetoric. Another source is his immersion in the language of Scripture, so that he is able to transmit some of the tone of the Biblical writers as he puts his own project in their service. He also knows some of the best writing and preaching the Christian church ever produced: Augustine, Jerome, and Bernard of Clairvaux are frequently the stylists behind the scenes.
But I think the immediate source of Calvin’s coram Deo theological style can be found in his biography, in the person of William Farel. Farel (1489-1565) was an older Reformer who had already started a work in Geneva before Calvin got there, and invited Calvin to join him in the project. Okay, “invited” is too weak a word. What Farel actually did was announce to Calvin that the will of God called for Calvin to join the pastoral work in Geneva, and that if Calvin tried instead to sneak away and hide in the world of scholarship, that God would blight his future work. John Calvin knew how to stand up to bullies, but he interpreted Farel’s speech as something different from spiritual bullying. He took it to be the voice of God calling him to a life’s work. He believed that Farel’s exhortation (an “alarming adjuration” or “dreadful imprecation” Calvin later called it) was a form of speech which placed him in the presence of God where he was forced to a decision.
A full account, a bit romanticized but all the better as a reading experience, can be found in the 8-volume History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin (published from 1863 to 1878) by J. H. Merle d’Aubigne (1794-1872 —yes, some of the volumes were published posthumously). Calvin, who was only 26 years old and had just published the first draft of the Institutes, had come on a detour through Geneva while trying to travel elsewhere. He intended to stay one night in an inn, visit with a friend, and move on. But the friend introduced him to Farel, who loved Calvin and had a wonderful plan for his life. Here are the high points (not the whole narrative) from d’Aubigne’s account:
Farel, who had read the Christian Institutes, had recognized in the author of that work the most eminent genius, the most scriptural theologian, and the most eloquent writer of the age. The thought that this extraordinary man was in Geneva, and that he could see and hear him, moved and delighted Farel. He went with all haste to the inn and entered into conversation with the youthful theologian. Everything confirmed him in his former opinion. He had long been looking for a servant of God to help him, yet had never thought of Calvin. But now a flash of light shone into his soul, an inward voice said to him: This is the man of God you are seeking. ‘At the very moment when I was thinking least about it,’ he said, ‘the grace of God led me to him.’ From that moment there was no hesitation or delay. ‘Farel, who glowed with a marvelous zeal for promoting the Gospel,’ says Calvin, ‘made every effort to retain me.’
‘Stay with me,’ said Farel, ‘and help me. There is work to be done in this city.’
Calvin replied with astonishment: ‘Excuse me, I cannot stop here more than one night.’
‘Why do you seek elsewhere for what is now offered you?’ replied Farel; ‘why refuse to edify the Church of Geneva by your faith, zeal, and knowledge?’
The appeal was fruitless: to undertake so great a task seemed to Calvin impossible. ‘But Farel, inspired by the spirit of a hero,’ says Theodore Beza, ‘would not be discouraged.’ He pointed out to the stranger that as the Reformation had been miraculously established in Geneva, it ought not to be abandoned in a cowardly manner; that if he did not take the part offered to him in this task, the work might probably perish, and he would be the cause of the ruin of the Church. Calvin could not make up his mind; he did not want to bind himself to a particular church; he told his new friend that he preferred traveling in search of knowledge, and making himself useful in the places where he chanced to halt. ‘Look first at the place in which you are now,’ answered Farel; ‘popery has been driven out and traditions abolished, and now the doctrine of the Scriptures must be taught here.’
‘I cannot teach,’ exclaimed Calvin; ‘on the contrary, I have need to learn. There are special labors for which I wish to reserve myself. This city cannot afford me the leisure that I require.’ He explained his plan. He wanted to go to Strasburg, to Bucer, and Capito, and then putting himself in communication with the other doctors of Germany, to increase his knowledge by continued study.
‘Study! leisure! knowledge!’ said Farel. ‘What! must we never practice? I am sinking under my task; pray help me.’
The young doctor had still other reasons. His constitution was weak. ‘The frail state of my health needs rest,’ he said. ‘Rest!’ exclaimed Farel, ‘death alone permits the soldiers of Christ to rest from their labors.’ Calvin certainly did not mean to do nothing. He would labor, but each man labors according to the gift he has received: he would defend the Reformation not by his deeds but by words. The reformer had not yet expressed his whole thought: it was not only the work they asked him to undertake that frightened him, it was also the locality in which he would have to carry it out. He did not feel himself strong enough to bear the combat he would have to engage in. He shrank from appearing before the assemblies of Geneva. The violence, the tumults, the indomitable temper of the Genevese were much talked of, and they intimidated and alarmed him.
To this Farel replied, ‘that the severer the disease, the stronger the measures to be employed to cure it.’ The Genevese storm, it is true; they burst out like a squall of wind in a gale; but was that a reason for leaving him, Farel, alone to meet these furious tempests? ‘I entreat you,’ said the intrepid evangelist, ‘to take your share. These matters are harder than death.’ The burden was too heavy for his shoulders; he wanted the help of a younger man.
But the young man of Noyon was surprised that he should be thought of. ‘I am timid and naturally pusillanimous,’ he said. ‘How can I withstand such roaring waves?’
At this Farel could not restrain a feeling of anger and almost of contempt. “Ought the servants of Jesus Christ to be so delicate,’ he exclaimed, ‘as to be frightened at warfare?’
This blow touched the young reformer to the heart. He frightened! — he prefer his own ease to the service of the Savior! His conscience was troubled and his feelings were violently agitated. But his great humility still held him back: he had a deep sentiment of his incapacity for the kind of work they wanted him to undertake. ‘I beg of you, in God’s name,’ he exclaimed, ‘to have pity on me! Leave me to serve Him in another way than what you desire.’
Farel, seeing that neither prayers nor exhortations could avail with Calvin, reminded him of a frightful example of disobedience similar to his own. ‘Jonah, also,’ he said, ‘wanted to flee from the presence of the Lord, but the Lord cast him into the sea.’ The struggle in the young doctor’s heart became more keen. He was violently shaken, like an oak assailed by the tempest; he bent before the blast, and rose up again, but a last gust, more impetuous than all the others, was shortly about to uproot him. The emotion of the elder of the two speakers had gradually increased, in proportion as the young man’s had also increased. Farel’s heart was hot within him. At that supreme moment, feeling as if inspired by the Spirit of God, he raised his hand towards heaven and exclaimed: ‘You are thinking only of your tranquillity, you care for nothing but your studies. Be it so. In the name of Almighty God, I declare that if you do not answer to His summons, He will not bless your plans.’ Then, perceiving that the critical moment had come, he added an ‘alarming adjuration’ to his declaration: he even ventured on an imprecation. Fixing his eyes of fire on the young man, and placing his hands on the head of his victim, he exclaimed in his voice of thunder: ‘May God curse your repose! may God curse your studies, if in such a great necessity as ours you withdraw and refuse to give us help and support!’
At these words, the young doctor, whom Farel had for some time kept on the rack, trembled. He shook in every limb; he felt that Farel’s words did not proceed from himself: God was there, the holiness of the presence of Jehovah laid strong hold of his mind; he saw Him who is invisible. It appeared to him, he said, ‘that the hand of God was stretched down from heaven, that it lay hold of him, and fixed him irrevocably to the place he was so impatient to leave.’
Compared to Farel, Calvin’s temperament certainly was “timid and pusillanimous,” and (contra the caricature of Calvin among those who have opinions about him but have not read him) he seldom expressed himself with the force and directness of Farel. He was by training a classical scholar and by temperament a retiring personality. But he knew from experience that human words, crafted responsibly and consecrated for divine service, could be the vehicle of a life-changing encounter with God. Thus in his own style (not Farel’s, I gratefully say!) he honed his Institutes, revision after revision, normed and informed by his investigations into Scripture, until the 1559 edition took its final shape. It is one carefully-constructed 1,500-page speech act that can teach you how to do theology as it must be done: in the presence of God.